(ISSN: 1527-5467)
the magazine of Literature & Literature-in-translation.


JAN 2000














The woman who practiced singing

 (Based on a story idea by Nguyen Ky Phong)

(This short story, written in English, has been first published in Songvan magazine [ISSN 1089-8123, discontinued in 2000], issue 12 & 13, 1998, which is under the same ownership and editorship of The Writers Postís publisher and editor N. Saomai / Nguyen Sao Mai).


      By my thirtieth birthday, I knew I would never become an opera singer, a diva , and I would never reach a perfect E note, the high MI, on the right hand side of my keyboard. It would always be a struggle to reach that high note, never with the level of ease and perfection necessary for me to feel like a bird flying into the limitless sky.
      And I cried.
      I was born in Vietnam. We immigrated to the U.S after the fall of Saigon in 1975. This put an end to my singing lessons. In America, I went to law school instead.
      My thought went back to that part of me long buried with the fall of Saigon, suppressed further by the arduous demand of the law practice. Perhaps there was a deeper reason for my career choice and my sense of nostalgia. Perhaps it was the influence of Beaudelaire' s Fleurs du Mal, read to me by Andy, an America lawyer who loves French literature.
      An international lawyer who took care of the adoption orphans and represented the shipping industry, Andy lived in Hue, Vietnam, in the sixties. Every Sunday he came to my house to drink a beer with my father. My father, who taught French literature, was Andy's best friend. They often sat silently in the garden while my mother attended to her beds of flowers. Occasionally, they talked about Vietnamese politics, the love-hate relationship between France and its former colony, Indochina, and the presence of the Americans.
      My most vivid memory of Andy was at my sixth birthday party. My mother had thrown a party for me in the garden. That was when I first met him. He was tall (compared to me or my parents) and a beautiful man, with well defined bone structure and a lean, muscular frame. He brought me a lot of presents. When the party was almost over, he pretended to be a pony for me and my friends to ride. I, of course, got most of the rides. There was a moment in the pony ride when Andy, my pony, turned over on his back, to take a rest. I was climbing onto him. I sat on his chest, laughing and laughing. He was smiling at me. I bent over and kissed his mouth. When I looked up, I saw a pair of brown eyes, under thick, curly, moving eyes lashes. They reminded me of the evening butterflies hovering over my mother' s flowers in the dying twilight of sunset. The day butterflies were usually colorful, but the evening butterflies were simply brown or black.
      The following year, Andy returned to America to get married, and his wife joined him in Vietnam. She drove a Deux Chevaux, and dropped him off at our house for his routine Sunday get-together with my father. She was tall, skinny, with blue eyes and blond hair. I was afraid of her. She wore a red lipstick and flowery Western dresses. She would kiss me on my cheeks but never smiled. I could hardly feel the contact with her thin lips. I was told she taught English at Lycee Dong Khanh, and when I was old enough to attend Dong Khanh, she would become my English teacher. I dread the day when all of that would come.
      Once I saw them together, Andy and his wife, in the Deux Chevaux. As usual, she was driving. They sat quietly and separately from each other, staring ahead. I asked my mother whether they were mad at each other. She said I was too young to inquire to such a thing.
      Andy never missed my birthday parties, and the pony game continued for years. At some point (I couldn't remember exactly when) my mother said I was growing up too fast and I could not play pony with Andy anymore.
      As it turned out, Andy' s wife never became my English teacher because I never attended Lycee Dong Khanh. We move to Saigon, and Andy and his wife moved there as well. For years, the Sundays meetings continued, but the pony game between me and Andy stopped.
      On my thirteenth birthday, Andy came over to give me yellow tea roses ordered from Dalat, and we sat in my mother' garden listening to him reciting Beaudelaire :

" Mon enfant, ma súur...
Sa douce langue natale
... Aimer ŗ loisir
Aimer et mourir
Au pays qui te ressemble." (*)

My child, my sister...
Your sweet native tongue
... loving in leisure
loving and dying
in the country resembling to you.

     I understood the word. The beauty of Beaudelaire lay partly in the powerful simplicity of his words. I want to sing them. Sa douce langue natale. Her sweet native tongue. I felt a vague sense of sadness. When I looked at Andy, I saw that same pair of brown eyes under thick lashes reminding me of brown, evening butterflies in my mothers' s garden in Hue.
      My father explained prior to becoming a lawyer, Andy graduated from Yale University with a degree in comparative literature. Beaudelaire was Andy' s favorite poet, and the law was only his choice for economic security. Andy' s first choice was to become a writer. He went to Indochina after having read Graham Greene' s The Quiet American, which was set in the backdrop of the Indochina war.
      So, on my thirteenth birthday, having listened to Beaudelaire, I decided I wanted to be an international lawyer, a writer, a poet, and lover of Beaudelaire. Like Andy.
      That same year, I auditioned for and enrolled in the National Institute of Music and Drama in Saigon. I began to study voice with a French Italian singer, the only operatic teacher in Saigon.
      Andy and his wife lived in a villa on La Rue Tu Duc, somewhere between my house and the institute. The road from my house to the institute was embroidered by tall trees, and I used to bike slowly alongside those trees, singing to myself for practice. I saw Andy and his wife in their car, this time, a Fiat. Again, she was driving, and they sat still, staring ahead. Occasionally, I saw Andry alone, walking, wearing glasses, looking extraordinarily handsome, with a book in his hand. He rarely said anything to me, except nodding to acknowledge my presence, and I would hurry to pass him.
      One time I was practicing the scale in the living room, next to my piano, attempting to reach the high C note, a Do, to work myself up to the high E note, a Mi, the ultimate Mi that constituted the perfect challenge for a young soprano. I was pushing my breasts forward, drawing a long, deep breath from beneath my diaphragm muscle, lower and lower, deeper and deeper into my abdomen, in order to support the heightened pitch. Yet I simply couldn't stretch my voice to reach a comfort zone. Frustrated, I stopped singing and looked out at the window. I caught his gaze. A pair of brown eyes under thick, curly lashes. Andy was watching me, and it wasn't a Saturday when he was supposed to come over for a beer with my father. Surprised and embarrassed, I thought for a moment I had stopped breathing.
      My singing practice had not paid off and my voice remained undeveloped when the country fell, and we immigrated to the United States. Shortly thereafter, we received the news from Andy's wife. They had returned to New York City. But Andy refused to practice law. He claimed he had fallen in love with Indochina and would want to go back. She ended the letter with a statement, "He's crazy!" My parents agreed with her.
      Life rolled on and I celebrated my seventeenth birthday in America. We were living in an old house in Carbondale, Illinois, in a mixed neighborhood, on a street full of big, old pecan trees. I was prepared to enter college and couldn't be happier to move into a dorm. American high schools and universities, with their football teams and cheerleaders, had killed off my sentiments for French poetry, until Andy showed up to pay us a surprise visit, just in time for my birthday.
      He looked older and thinner, but still very handsome with his lean muscles and dark hair. He told us he would be moving to France to join the Paris office of an international law firm. He told my parents he was still in love with Indochina and Beaudelaire, and that Paris should be good for him.
      For my birthday, he gave me an envelope, which contained a poem. He said the poem described my beauty and his love for Indochina. The poem was free verses, too abstract for me to understand, especially after I had been brainwashed by American pop culture. It spoke of a maiden who practiced singing, hoping to achieve a mythical voice- the type that could turn humans into stone. The poem ended with a foreign phrase "Nec amo, nec tussis celatur." He explained it meant "Love is like a cough; it cannot be hidden" I felt something stirred in my heart.
      Andy told me I had grown up into a beautiful young woman with style and class, as he had predicted on my sixth birthday. He jokingly said American boys would send me so many roses I would have to put them in my bath tub, since my room could hold no more vases. He promised to send me a "real present" soon. Part of the present, he said, would be an apartment overlooking Champs Elysees if I ever wanted to visit Paris.
      Before he left, he asked me if I ever wanted to practice singing again. I hadn't had time to answer when my father rushed him off to the airport.
      After Andy's visit, my father said Andy's wife had left him, as he could no longer feel a sense of belonging in America. My father said Andy always preferred making poems over practicing law. In my father's view, there could never be a happy ending for an artist-turn-lawyer, and Indochina had become Andy's escape. "From America to Indochina to France, there was a lost child, a dreamer, and that was Andy," my father said. My mother, on the other hand, thought Andy was always a little bizarre.
      Listening to my parents' conversation, I recalled vividly the moment in my former native Saigon, when I was trying to reach the high "Mi", and how I caught a pair of brown eyes looking in from the window...


      I never took up music as my main study. I became a lawyer and spent the money I earned on trivial things like Chanel goods. to fool myself with a sense of "nobility", I spent 900 hours a year on probono work, in addition to my normal load of 2000 billable hours. I also sent money back to friends and relatives in my former Vietnam. hoping to help out those young women who might be trying to reach their own high "MI".
      In between my long, hard hours of slaving for law firms and corporations, I had no time or peace to find my solace in Beaudelaire. Or to think of Andy, my childhood idol, from whom I got the idea it was possible to combine law and art.
      Years went by like a dream and I turned thirty.
      Sitting among boxes of documents in an intensive discovery project, I decided to take up singing again. At thirty, under the coaching of various voice professors, I repeated the arduous struggle to reach DO, RE, MI, FA, SOL, LA, SI, DO, RE, and then my ultimate MI. Efforts were almost futile because of lack of consistency. My work schedule as a big-firm lawyer, and the unhealthy lifestyle it created, blocked my striving for perfection and my reach for freedom3/4 the kind experienced only when the voice surpassed its earthy limit to fly high into a limitless sky.
      I gave up and then started again and then gave up. And then I started again. In between, I cried into my pillow. For something so beyond my reach it could only exit in my imagination.


      I was practiced law in New York City when my mother wrote to tell me Andy had committed suicide. In his Paris apartment overlooking Champs Elysees.
      I had never gone there to visit. I knew then, by reading my mother's letter, that I would never go there to visit. Gone was the chance. Or the birthday present he once promised.
      Andy's death did not surprise me. But fear crept in to the depth of my soul, and I couldn't sleep for months.
      I was filled with fear because I had just seen him in New York City only a month before he died.
      He had contacted me in New York City to let me know he would be returning to Indochina for a visit and, perhaps, to teach again, now that the Vietnamese Government had opened its doors to the Western world. he had hinted whether I would want to join him. Of course, I couldn't. For one thing, I had my law practice, which filled up my days, hours, and minutes.
      One winter evening in Manhattan, I was standing by the subway entrance. I had been back from China Town, where I had eaten a bowl of Pho, Vietnamese noodle, and drunk Vietnamese coffee. I was standing in the cold, on the high heels, and in a heavy cashmere coat, when a skinny old man began to approach me.
      The man was gray and feeble, but the touch of elegance left in his stature brought back memories from my childhood. It was Andy, holding a book, just as in those days when he was strolling the tree-filled La Rue Tu Duc in my former Saigon.
      I could not believe my eyes. He was standing before me. It was Andy, but gone was the lean muscular built or vivaciousness of a young man. His face was tauter, wrinkled, and his eyes were sad. The brown pupils appearing on white had lost the bright light of youth. The eyes were full of anguish and pain.
      It was a time of awkward reacquaintance. I felt alien toward him. But the bond of childhood somehow thickened and filled up the space between us in an unnatural way.
      We spoke very little, just small sentences, but I could tell he was very depressed and agitated. As though a threshold had been reached and he was desperately holding on to something, of which I became a symbol. He said he had been wandering around for hours trying to find me in Manhattan.
      I asked him if he would want something to drink or eat, but he only want to walk. So we walked in the cold of a New York winter night.
      I couldn't recall all the streets we had walked through, but as we passed a row of brownstones, he stopped me and held my face with his hands. he told me I was still beautiful as he had always predicted, and that I would remain beautiful for a long time after he was gone.
      And then he started talking as though in a trance, as though he was reciting Beaudelaire again, with such intensity it was hard to follow. He talked of those days in Paris, when, in between bouts of drinking, he had shut himself from the world and a vibrant City of Light, when America, France and Indochina all had rejected him and let him down. He talked racily about how his law practice crumbled, how he tried to get his wife back, how manuscripts were rejected and motivation to work was reduced to zero, how the struggle was hard and the world and friends all turned against him.
      He talked of his return to Indochina- now an alien world run by the new comrades and foreign investors. He talked of how buildings were going up with Hong Kong style and semi-American luxury and comfort, and how the French architecture and charm that persisted through hundreds of years were gradually disappearing. how the women of Indochina who looked just like me had tried to get his money, and how the government had suspected and followed him. It was no longer a place where, despite a devastating war in the jungles and villages, he could sit in a garden and recite Beaudelaire to a young Vietnamese girl who looked at him with adoring eyes.
      And then he talked of the darkness of my eyes and hair. The darkness of hot and humid summer nights in Indochina, where the blondness and coolness of his wife's hair and brows seemed so out of place. Aimer et mourir. Au pays qui te ressemble. Loving and dying. In a country resembling you. He talked of creativity and failure. How the emptiness was so immense and the destructiveness so terrifying they killed off the will to create.
      And then he kissed me, his hands lingering on my cashmere coat. I could feel he was shaking. It was first a small kiss on my cheek, and then he brought his to mine. And his tongue was parting my lips. It was as if he were trying to penetrate through, grasping what was left of life. It was the desperate neediness of someone who was close to death.
      I was too confused, fearful and overwhelmed with the course of events to feel anything real. The night was so cold and I was all covered up in the heavy coat, tired from walking on high heels, after a long day of hard law office work.
      When he let go, he looked deep into my eyes. A terror arose in me, as I could no longer recognize the vivacious pair of brown eyes of my childhood. Instead, I saw the blood-shot eyes of an old man. I look away.
      He tumbled a little, waved to a cab and then disappeared inside, leaving me with my own sadness of knowing the brown eyes of my childhood were gone. The thick curly lashes. Like the evening butterflies hovering over my mother's tropical flower beds.
      In kissing me, he had dropped his book and I picked it up, after his taxi had rolled on.
      It was the last time I saw Andy.


      In 1994, I changed my practice to international transactions and returned to Vietnam on behalf of Mobil Corporation. In between long hours of work in an inert bureaucracy, I managed to return to places filled with memories. The scene of my sixth birthday, when I had climbed over a beautiful young American male with dark hair and hard eyes. The garden where Beaudelaire was read. But everything changed. The wretched poverty of today's Vietnam took away all romanticism of memory.
      I stood in front of the house that was once the villa occupied by Andy and his blonde wife, where I used to see the two of them leaving together in a Fiat. It had been converted into a French Vietnamese restaurant catered to European patrons. I strolled by the streets between my house and the National Institute of Music and Drama, where I used to sing underneath the shade of those beautiful trees bordering the streets.
      I took a cyclo to Saigon's Notre Dame Catheral, a miniature of Notre Dame de Paris , in the heart of Saigon. This was one of the few spots in Saigon that remained unchanged. the border of tall trees guarding the cathedral stood enduringly against the vestige of time.
      It was the early evening hours in Saigon. I got off the cyclo and walked toward the cathedral. For a moment, I thought I saw Andy, in between rows of trees, young and energetic, but wistful still, holding a book, wearing glasses, and extraordinarily handsome. He was walking toward me, nodding to acknowledge my presence, and when I passed him, his beautiful brown eyes followed my footsteps.
      All of a sudden, I wanted to sing so bad, so bad, to reach those high notes on the right hand side of my piano keyboard. Into the skyline of the new Saigon. Until night fell, and darkness subsided so the evening butterflies of his eyelashes would gather and follow me into my nocturnal tune, where finally I would reach a perfect "MI".
      Sorrow sank in, as I realized perhaps in my life I had fallen in love too early. At thirteen years of age when somebody read Beaudelaire to me in the garden of my former home. Nec amo, nec tussis celatur. Love is like a cough. It cannot be hidden. The knowledge came when I felt these lashes of his had turned into evening butterflies. They landed in my heart, one hot summer night in Indochina.
      And standing in the heart of the new Saigon, I began my own monologue. Growing up as an artist in a heartbreaking place filled with history like Indochina, or otherwise being connected to it somehow (like in the case of the artist in Andy), one learned to love a place, a person, only to leave them or to lose them. This must be the tragedy of a sensitive soul connected forever to a place, a person, or a piece of memory that no longer existed in real life.
      I closed my eyes, thinking of the burden of struggling between law and art, knowing Andy had left this world, and my fear and sorrow and monologue were mine alone to bear. In that moment of solitude, I continued my monologue, ending it with a question :
      In what's left of my womanhood, will there be someone to read me Beaudelaire in the garden of a place that is no more?

(This short story, written in English, has been first published in Songvan Magazine [ISSN 1089-8123, discontinued in 2000], issue 12 & 13, 1998, which is under the same ownership and editorship of The Writers Postís publisher and editor N. Saomai / Nguyen Sao Mai).


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The Writers Post Jan. 2000
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